Escondido Doubles Down: Protests Are Okay… Except Most of the Time

SAN DIEGO – The City of Escondido, aided by the California Highway Patrol, has violated the First Amendment by restricting the public’s right to protest, demonstrate, record and speak out against its controversial vehicle checkpoint operations, charged the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties in a case filed in federal court today. With its suit, the San Diego ACLU hopes to put an end to the City’s recurring pattern of interfering with peaceful protest and monitoring of police activities.

The San Diego ACLU complaint cites three specific incidents in the past sixteen months in which the Escondido Police or California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers illegally interfered with protesters making known their political opinions on the City’s ongoing and controversial traffic checkpoints. Indisputable videotape evidence shows that police officers unlawfully forced protesters to move when they were merely engaged in peaceful protest or videotaping of checkpoints.

“This is a clear-cut case about First Amendment rights to protest and monitor the actions of police officers,” said David Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “Vague boilerplate claims about traffic and officer safety do not justify trampling on the First Amendment.”

In January 2011, Matthew Bologna and Jake Worts were protesting a checkpoint from a public sidewalk along Valley Parkway. An Escondido police officer unlawfully cited a Vehicle Code section about selling merchandise within 500 feet of a freeway ramp to compel them to move along, in violation of their First Amendment rights.

After the San Diego ACLU notified Escondido of this violation, CHP officers cited the same Vehicle Code section to likewise violate their right to protest a similar checkpoint near Broadway and Lincoln in May 2011.

In correspondence following this incident, CHP asserted its officer was concerned with “driver safety, as he believed passing traffic was being distracted by the protest signs.” But CHP admitted that the “standard” for when protesters allegedly create “traffic or public safety hazard” is “vague.” The First Amendment does not allow police to censor the political speech of roadside protesters, political campaigners, or anyone else based on vague grounds of alleged “safety” or because someone might be “distracted.”

Recently, on April 24, 2012, when Bologna was peacefully videotaping another checkpoint during daylight hours, two Escondido police officers ordered him to move away, in essence barring him from taping the checkpoint operations. One of the officers told him, “We have a policy not to have you in our operational area for officer safety reasons,” although he was peacefully standing on a public sidewalk on the opposite side of the street from the checkpoint.

“The time has come to resolve this in court. Escondido officers continue to violate the First Amendment,” said Loy. “CHP has admitted that its traffic safety standard is ‘vague’ but refused to provide any guidance on when and under what circumstances it might restrict political speech in a public forum. Plaintiffs have no choice but to ask the court to protect their free speech rights.”

The complaint includes a quote from one of the two plaintiffs, Matthew Bologna. “I absolutely will continue to protest these open displays of tyranny,” said Bologna. “I believe in freedom and that does not involve being stopped for no reason and asked to present papers.” The San Diego ACLU will be asking the court to enter a preliminary injunction against the EPD and the CHP so that officers may no longer infringe on protesters’ free speech rights.

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Videos below of two different incidents in which the Escondido Police Department unlawfully relocated protesters and stopped them from videotaping a checkpoint.

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